Happy Birthday today to Eddie Van Halen, who remains, at the still young age of 59, considering he’s seemingly been around forever, and indeed, the first Van Halen record was released 35 years ago this year, one of the, if not THE, (in the opinions of many, many guitar heroes globally) greatest guitarists of all time.
Hailing from the Netherlands, and the son of a musical dynamo in his dad, Jan, who played brass instruments and the piano, Eddie Van Halen learned his craft by rote, by “listening and watching” in his own admission. Although his style is a hyperfast, tasteful stream of musical consciousness on the fretboard, it’s interesting to note that he grew up on bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin, who both of course had guitarists that were and still are legends in their own right in Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page respectively, yet neither of those men ever had the kind of technical razzle dazzle aurally manifested like the sounds that came through the amplifiers of Eddie Van Halen.
In the early years of Van Halen (which went through various name changes before settling on the Eddie and his drummer brother’s surname, like Genesis and Rat Salad, the latter named after a drum solo track on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album), they cut their teeth doing disco and pop covers. Finally, a record deal was inked in late 1977 and in February 1978, the band, with Eddie’s brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass, and the colorful, also using three names lead singer David Lee Roth, released a debut album that became an instant hard rock classic which showcased songs that have become in essence virtual blueprints for all of late 70s hard rock and roll: “Running With the Devil,” “Jamie’s Crying,” “Ain’t Talking Bout Love,” the Kinks song “You Really Got Me,” and the late blues artist John Himm’s solemn laced with sexual metaphors classic “Ice Cream Man.”
But it was the instrumental track “Eruption” which really made the musical and fanbase community sit up and take extreme notice. That track, clocking in at under two minutes, exhibited two-handed tapping, which was an early version of the form, which pretty much pioneered a revolution in the decade to follow, as “tapping” became a standard if not expected norm by almost every guitarist on every album or live show which shared the genre that Van Halen did, in its wake. But it wasn’t just the musical histrionics that made “Eruption” a classic, it was also bringing a sort of classical style of guitar to the masses; again, Eddie Van Halen wasn’t the first, but by employing these techniques to a new audience, and doing it in a way that wasn’t out and out thievery of the styles honed before him, Van Halen became a dynamo in the industry almost instantly, and already down his path of legendary status.
A few more albums followed with the original lineup, the most successful was the 1984 album, which put them in the pantheon of becoming rock and roll superstars and even hit makers with the chart topper “Jump.” During this time, Eddie also played the urgent and memorable solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” on his Thriller album, which became the biggest selling record of all time. For fans of the band and Van Halen the man, it was clearly the peak, it wasn’t even like there was nowhere to go but up as the cliché goes, because they had already reached the apex of their powers and talents by this time.
The band splintered afterwards; Roth left due to internal tensions and then Sammy Hagar filled in the frontman position as the band found even bigger success and even gaining newer fans with the more leaner approach Hagar helped give their musical chemistry. Then more personnel changes, and then the lineups rotated like an out of control spinning top, but what didn’t change or waiver was the pyrotechnic thunder of what came out of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. He even conquered roadblocks of various illnesses as the decades wore on, and still came out on top every time. He and Van Halen continue to tour and record in some form or fashion, the fan base still runs high, even if as the old adage goes, “it ain’t like the good ol’ days anymore.” It doesn’t need to be, Van Halen still gives his all every night he’s on stage, or every appearance he performs, or every note he records. (Nowadays, Roth is back in the band, with Eddie’s 21-year-old son with actress Valerie Bertinelli, to whom he was married from 1981–2007, Wolfgang, replacing Michael Anthony on bass.)
So Happy Birthday today to one of the true blue real genuine article living legend musicians around today. A man who has not allowed the passage of time to throw any rust on his techniques, a man who still remains the main influence to the type of guitar style he pioneered and innovated and mastered, the King of his respective musical castle, the one and only, Eddie Van Halen.